Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Dark Holiday

James Harvey -- along with Chris Fujiwara, Tom Gunning, David Bordwell, and Raymond Carney (except when Carney's writing about Capra) -- is one of my film writer/historian Gods. There is so much to learn from reading (and re-reading) Professor Harvey's two masterpieces, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood (1997) and Movie Love in the Fifties (2002). 'Though he hasn't published since '02, word is he's currently wrapping up a history of the Western to be published by Farrar Straus, and based on Movie Love's astonishing analysis of Johnny Guitar and The Lusty Men it is a release devoutly to be wished for.

The knockout punch for me in first reading Movie Love was the chapter on a forgotten and very hard-to-find (thank you, Karagarga) WWII noir called Christmas Holiday, directed by my favorite noir director Robert Siodmak (Phantom Lady, Cobra Woman, The Suspect, Spiral Staircase, The Killers, Dark Mirror, Criss Cross, Cry of the City) and written by the ever-strange Herman J. Mankiewicz.

Perhaps Siodmak's most famous sequence, Phantom Lady (1944).



Or maybe the opening to The Killers (1946).



James Harvey:
The script that Herman Mankiewicz supplied for Siodmak's Christmas Holiday had some resemblances to his Academy Award-winning Citizen Kane screenplay. It has the same skewed chronology, the same overlapping flashbacks; and entering it is a bit like stepping into a labyrinth (one of Welles's favorite movie metaphors), mostly because it begins so far away from its main story and characters. It's almost fifteen minutes before the star and central character appears or is even spoken of. In the meantime, there are (the opening scene) an OCS graduation ceremony (even a speech); a scene in the barracks with a young lieutenant (Dean Harens) getting a Dear John wire from his fiancée; a passenger-plane flight through an electrical storm; a forced landing in New Orleans; and the soldier getting a room at a hotel where people are all sleeping in the lobby (it's wartime and it's Christmas Eve). In the hotel bar he meets a friendly, half-soused newspaperman, Simon Fenimore (Richard Whorf). You got troubles? I'll take you to the Maison Lafitte, says the newspaperman. What's the Maison Lafitte? "It's a -- well, let's face it -- it's a kinda joint a little way outta town."

It looks like a Wolf Man outtake when we get there: a crumbling porticoed mansion in a raging night storm, overarching trees bent by wind and rain in the foreground of a long shot, as the two men emerge from their car and struggle through the storm onto the front porch. But inside the entrance hall, it's light, with a Christmas tree by the door at the foot of a stairway, and a crystal chandelier overhead, as a maid in cap and apron takes their coats and lightning flashes through the windows, while a Dixieland band rides and rollicks on the soundtrack. And after all the neutral, generic places we've been looking at before this (from the parade grounds to the hotel room), getting to this one -- lush and lively and tacky all at once -- makes you feel the way a good song does when it finally gets to the chorus. Now, we know, we're really at the movies.
Buy the book.

Robert Siodmak's Christmas Holiday (1944).